Talk trash or waste, just not both

Talk trash or waste, just not both

Sometimes I wonder why I help companies with “sustainability” when what I’m really helping them manage is waste. The problem is, if I call myself a “waste” consultant according to conventional lexicon, you would think that I was something I’m not.  The issue is that the term “waste” is frequently used in place of “garbage.”  In reality, these terms are not interchangeable, nor synonymous.

For example, from

Synonyms for “garbage”

2. litter, refuse, junk, rubbish.

Synonyms for “waste”

1. misspend, dissipate, fritter away, expend; 3. erode; 5. ravage, pillage, plunder, sack, spoil, despoil; 10. decline, perish, wane, decay; 12. dissipation; 15. spolation, desolation; 29. unused, useless, extra.

We need to turn the business discussion around sustainability away from climate change and toward waste because the opportunities are right in front of us, not at 36,000 feet.  Sustainability consultants help companies address climate change by optimizing or minimizing waste.  I think we only call ourselves that to avoid confusion with “refuse manager.”

Waste as a concept is what sustainability as a field attempts to address.  Waste as a thing is what the waste and recycling industries attempt to address.  The reason we forget the distinction between the two is that both they overlap.

Waste as a product typically arises from end-of-life products, leftover packaging, discarded products or a by-product of making or using something. Much of it is unavoidable. It is what is left over once a job is done.  Matter categorized as “waste” is impaired and can no longer perform as intended. Rubbish and garbage are the better words because they are specific nouns. It is truly a cost of doing business, or anything.

Waste as a concept represents something that is not needed. By definition, it is produced and/or or acquired and controlled unnecessarily. It may not even be a physical thing. It can 100% be eliminated without affecting the mission. Why this matters for business is that such “waste” in fact represents assets or goods purchased, invested in, financed, transported, stored, packaged, accounted for, handled, and disposed of unnecessarily. Such waste is wasteful, and it represents a business operating deficiency.

Shifting the discussion to waste and away from “sustainability” and “climate change” will provide better visibility into the problem and more tangible benefits from solutions. Just don’t confuse this sort of “waste” with the stuff that gets picked up from your curb on Monday mornings.

Picture of dollars in a waste bin via

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